Community Marketing: going back to my roots

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt, CEO of Truly, has over 20 years experience in market research and strategy on both client and agency side. She wrote one of the first books on how the social web is changing business, was named one of 2013's Entrepreneurial Women to Watch by Entrepreneur Magazine and one of the Most Influential Women in Technology in Fast Company. She has built an engaged and enthusiastic business audience online of over 345,000 followers, including a significant number of thought leaders. Tara combines a data-centric with a human-centric approach to building an audience, leaning heavily on insights into consumer patterns and behaviors while keeping an eye on online trends and changing expectations.

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Just recently, we made the decision to build our soon-to-be-launched community for marketers (and aspiring marketers) on Mighty Networks, a community website building platform founded by community pioneer, Gina Bianchini. As part of signing up for the Business Plan, I was invited into the “Mighty Networks Hosts” community, where I signed up for the Community Design Masterclass.

Though I, myself, have been working in and building online communities since the early 2000s, I was completely transformed by this course.

Mostly, I was struck by how unique Gina’s approach is to everything else that is trumpeted out there in the world of digital marketing today. I realized how far away from my own roots as a (self-identified) community marketer I had drifted. In fact, as each of the weekly lessons marched on, I felt the fog of today’s digital marketing/growth hacking messages lift until I remembered how damned effective engaging with humans and communities really is.

In order to describe this better, I’ll take you back to the time I was a fresh-faced young marketeer, just arriving in San Francisco.

Chapter 1: A Community Marketer walks into a bar…

In 2005, I was recruited as the “marketing person” for a stealth photo hosting startup that was operating under the name of Ojos (it would become, then, then it was acquired by Google). I had been writing about a new style of marketing I called community marketing* on my blog, HorsePigCow, and got the attention of Shel Israel, who worked with the company. I arrived in San Francisco (via Toronto) in August of 2005 to be the sole marketer AND female on the startup’s team (of engineers and researchers).

Over the next few months, I applied everything I talked about on my blog to the task of marketing the startup, which seemed to be going incredibly well, but there was one problem: My boss didn’t think I was doing my job.

At one point, he called me into the boardroom and accused me of not actually working on what he had hired me to do. As he put it:

“I don’t pay you to socialize on the blogosphere all day.”

Now, I should have replied:

“Actually, that’s exactly what you pay me to do,”

but I didn’t. I was stumped.

You see, I was completely unable to describe what it was that I was doing at the time. There wasn’t language for it. There weren’t case studies or precedents. Nobody wrote a book about this or gave talks at fancy conferences. I was following my instincts…and it was working.

You see, “socializing on the blogosphere all day,” was bringing attention to this yet-to-be-launched startup that operated out of a tiny beige office space in Redwood City. Between late August and the launch in late November (3 months), I socialized on the blogosphere and beyond to the result of amassing 50,000 alpha requests that turned into 20,000+ users signing up within 24 hours of launch (uploading >1 million images) and lots of organic press coverage (as well as a new round of funding and potential acquisitions).

[And just to note: we didn’t buy any ads, hire any PR firms, or deploy any “funnels” or “growth hacks” (there were no such things at the time).]

The day after launch, my boss apologized for not having faith in me, but only a few months after that he hired a “real marketer” (a guy who specialized in affiliate marketing) above me, so I left.

It was, then, I founded Citizen Agency with Chris Messina (the guy most famous for inventing the hashtag).

Chapter 2: The cult of ‘social media’ is born

I hated (and still hate) that name. It didn’t describe what I saw and experienced emerging in marketing. It focused on the media at the expense of the people. I adore the humans behind the Social Media Club (who popularized the term), but I refused to join because I didn’t consider myself a ‘social media marketer.’ I was (and am) a marketer who describes herself as a “customer sympathizer”.

To me, the secret to good marketing is to put yourself in the shoes of the customer every time. Social media made it about the media and the mechanisms of networking.

When clients came to us, we told them that we will guide and coach them on how to engage with their communities, but we didn’t agree with a third-party doing this work for them. Our focus was on pointing them in a direction and helping them engage and build those muscles.

But it wasn’t what companies wanted. They wanted to pay someone to get them attention.

During this time, I got my book deal and focused on writing and building the coworking movement. After my book launched, I moved to Montreal to work on Buyosphere, a peer-to-peer shopping search startup (we folded after 2.5 yrs). I was pretty much outside of the marketing world from 2009-2013 (I actually hired a community manager at Buyosphere!), which blinded me to what was happening.

Chapter 3: I step out for a second and all hell breaks loose!

The first sign that something had gone terribly awry was when I started working for Justin Trudeau‘s Liberal leadership campaign. I had come out of Buyosphere feeling all dejected, so when I was approached to help Justin clinch the LPC leadership, I jumped at the chance to get back into community building.

My expectations were that, as an internal team member, I would have the keys to the campaign platforms and organically build the heck out of the community while we (I worked with Adele McAlear on this project) coached Justin on engaging the community directly. The reality was that he had a communications team who wanted to “approve” everything we wrote (for the campaign channels).

I know that this sounds logical to most of you out there, but I was shocked. IT WAS SOCIAL! THIS WAS SACRELIGIOUS!

First of all, I was offended that we would “plan” any content at all. Social was meant to engage at the moment – bantering back and forth with people and have conversations. How could you plan conversations? Who were these people and why did they not understand the nature of community and social?

Secondly…APPROVE? How would that work? Was I supposed to send over every response to a communications team to go over? That was ridiculous!

You see, while I was out writing books and building startups, “social media” had been adopted by traditional PR and ad agencies everywhere, who, then applied their press release and ad copy processes. THE VERY PEOPLE WHO CONTROLLED THE MESSAGE FOR DECADES HAD TAKEN OVER A SPACE WHERE THE ENTIRE POINT WAS TO BE OPEN AND HONEST AND NOT PITCHY OR SPUN.

I looked around and realized that my beloved world of community and social had just become another way to push messages and agendas. The wolf had invaded the henhouse and trained all of the chickens to be wolves.

Chapter 4: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?

Though I tried to fight this gross perversion of the thing I so loved and fought to unleash in the early days, I eventually had to make a living.

So, I caved…well, mostly caved. Through my “content” (another word I hate so much), I continued to attempt to steer the ship back on course:

…all the while, complying with the new rules (which, btw, are the old rules applied to a new media). I worked at several of those PR and ad firms, which I didn’t last too long at because every day my soul would die a little being there. Finally, I started Truly Inc. in order to call my own shots. We don’t run people’s social media accounts, but we do run editorial (which is closely tied to audience insights and community listening), which is as close as I could get to purity. My soul doesn’t ache and I feel good about what we put out into the world (99.999% of the time).

But somewhere between attending Gina’s Community Design course and living through the experience of a worldwide pandemic, something is starting to bubble up for me.

Chapter 5: In these uncertain times…

(Consequently, another phrase I hate. It pretty much perfectly encapsulates everything that is rotten in the world of marketing: insincere, patronizing, lily-livered, vanilla, conventional, humdrum, watered-down, plebian, self-important, hogwash…I’ll stop there)

Ever since I returned to being a marketing practitioner, I’ve felt a bit off-balance. I spend more time running in various directions to try to keep up with the latest in “growth hacking,” than following that instinct that drove my original career growth.

There are constantly images of smug, hipster dudes with their arms folded confidently showing up in my feed, spouting pithy quotes about data and metrics and funnels and optimization. These images make me feel small and uncertain, much like my old boss did sitting across from me in that beige boardroom in Redwood City.

Listen, I’ve read and studied and learned about data and metrics and funnels and optimization and such, and, yes, much of it is incredibly useful in guiding our work and getting more effective. But, in general, we’ve lost so much more than we’ve gained through this myopic idolization of the growth hacker mentality.

And, no, we didn’t lose much of anything from the boom days of advertising and brand management lore that we shouldn’t have lost. Ads are still as effective as they ever were (which is to say, effective enough to get attention while you pay for them and interrupt enough people) and brands matter more than ever (but not in the way most brand managers think – nobody cares about your Pantone color, bud).

What we lost before we were able to really experience and learn from it was community. The social web put the power of engaging directly with human beings in front of us and we squandered it.

The social web put the power of engaging directly with human beings in front of us and we squandered it.

Community. People. Relationships. Connections. Conversations. Belonging. Purpose. These are all words that Gina Bianchini used over and over and over again to describe how to design a Mighty Network community that people will want to be part of.

Contrast this to other platforms I looked at before we chose Mighty Networks. I played around with Kajabi, a really slick site builder that focuses on acquisition and funnels. Or Podia, a really striking site builder that focuses on showcasing your brand and products beautifully. I looked at these and many, many others, but kept coming back to Mighty because they “got” something nobody else did: engaging people is the only thing that matters. You can screw up everything else and be forgiven if you build something that connects and engages with people.

I’m not shilling for MN, btw. It’s just that their model is so focused on engagement that I’m inspired to write about it.

Chapter 6: 🎶 Time to recharge my soul. 🎶 Zippin up my boots. 🎶 Going back to my roots. 🎶

[here’s your earworm!]

As I look around me at this moment, I see (other than the same damned four walls I’ve been seeing for 6 weeks and counting) a world filled with people who want more. People who’ve lost their jobs and their businesses, using this time to help others and reconnect. Companies pulling back on their ads and content and rethinking how they get in front of potential customers. Customers taking more brands to task.

It may be temporary, but it’s in these moments that we get to the core of what we really need from life and who we want to be in it. There’s nothing like a crisis to help us realize that we were way too focused on stupid shit at the expense of the good stuff that matters.

As I spoke with my senior leadership today, I recounted the story of Ojos/Riya/ and how “socializing on the blogosphere all day” led to an enormous interest in what we were doing. Sure, that was a different, quainter time, but I still believe strongly in the power of community and connection.

I told them I want to focus the energy of every single one of our team members on “socializing” all day instead of designing conversion funnels and a/b testing ads. And, instead of creating cold, crafted content calendars, we need to engage in real conversations. As Gina said in one of the lessons when talking about creating content for the members of your Mighty Network:

“It’s not about your content (or an overwhelming volume of content). We know from experience that people are already overwhelmed by stuff to read. People don’t want another article, they want connection. They want conversations. And they want a journey to mastering something.”

This struck such a nerve for me. There is no shortage of articles and courses and videos and podcasts and everything you’d need to become an expert on pretty much every subject out there. But that’s not how most of us learn. Most of us learn through doing and having great mentors who guide us through complex ideas. And, as Maya Angelou said in one of my favorite quotes of all time:

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I want everyone who eventually joins the Phlywheel member site to feel like they’ve come home. I want them to feel relief, empowerment, safety…community. And I want them to take that feeling and spread it to the marketing work they do going forward. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate and grow more agro-marketing-hype-bros.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against community marketing is that “it isn’t scalable.” Well, in response to this, I say:

Community is infinitely scalable because the whole point of it is that it isn’t about you.

Community is about connecting people to people, not people to brands. And until the brands let go of their content calendars and brand guidelines and approval processes and vanity metrics and everything else that makes it about them and controlling the message, they’ll never see how powerful that can be.


* To note, there was no Twitter or Facebook or any of the cool new networks we have today back then, just blogs, wikis, forums, and early social networks like Flickr.

p.s. if you’re interested in being part of this community when we launch it, fill out the form on this page.

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